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Elegy for a Cranberry Field

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2012 November Issue Newsletter

By Genevieve Goldleaf, NOFA/Mass Public Relations Intern

Cranberries

Leo Cakounes calls himself “kind of a practical-thinking old-school front-porch farmer kind of guy”. He’s one of a shrinking number of organic cranberry growers on Cape Cod, and soon might leave their ranks himself. He told me yesterday, while taking a break from screening cranberries, that this year might be the one where he and his wife, Andrea, decide to transition to conventional farming, after 20 years in the game at Cape Farm and Cranberry Company.

He’s threatened by two things: one, the rising tide of weeds eating up his acreage, and two, the perception of cranberries as a once-a-year fruit. His theory is that even consumers who regularly purchase organic justify choosing the cheaper option, figuring one conventionally-grown cranberry sauce won’t kill them. At the same time, Leo points out that berries rank among the produce with the highest pesticide residue counts, along with tree fruits and leafy greens. Pesticides weigh heavy on his mind: his neighbors love the fact that the water he puts back into their local pond doesn’t have chemical residues.

The Cakounes, including their daughter Evangeline, 14, work a sprawling tract in North Harwich, MA, where they offer guided tours of their fields, and raise pigs and lambs among other livestock. Leo follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, also a pig farmer; he wasn’t planning to get into the cranberry game when they first moved to the Cape, but he and Andrea were sure they wanted plenty of space. It turned out that bogland was the most affordable option, so cranberries it was. Their property has been organic from the start: the first bog they leased had been fallow before the Cakounes moved onto it, so they were eligible for certification by their second year on the land, soon adding two more to the mix.

Leo wakes up early, drives into town to collect vegetables culled from North Harwich’s restaurants and stores, and drives back to feed the pigs and the rest of the animals on both properties before breakfast. He spends the day focused on berries; at this time of year, it’s hours of screening the dry-picked fruit, to be packed by the pound. A month ago, that midday was spent picking berries, and a month before that, mowing and weeding. By three, it’s back to the animals before an early sundown. Leo hopes for a cold winter this year, for a solid cover of ice over his fields, and then for a slow, steady spring melt soaking his fields. Come summer, rainy nights and long, hot days are best for the berries to get a good drenching, but stay dry enough to avoid fungus. That’s a tough task for cranberries to manage; they like their feet wet, but the fungal growth spurred by damp conditions is bad news, and there’s no organic fungicide out there that suits Leo’s needs.

Generally speaking, cranberries don’t come easy. “Every problem that an organic food grower has,” Leo says ruefully; “trying to do it with cranberries, it’s twice as hard.” The low-growing vines make it difficult to weed effectively, or at all. “You can’t just go out there and start killing weeds when the cranberries are on the vines, because you’re stepping on the crop!” (As a result, the weeds are taking over: Leo’s lost 6 or 7 acres out of his 20 to the ever-increasing carpet of weeds.) Leo’s awareness of these challenges facing him as a cranberry grower is rooted in a deep sense of history.”The bugs have been around as long as the cranberries, and they’ve established a food source.” These pests have been here longer than he has, and it appears they’ll outlast him.

Given the price of land, Leo and Andrea made an economic decision to go into cranberries, but market trends look like they might drive them out. Most of the Cakounes’ crop goes into sweetened, dried cranberries, sold both locally and to European and Japanese markets. But there’s been a falling-off of demand: Leo has seen prices drop fivefold since he got started. “It’s very difficult for me as a grower to try to break people’s habit of buying a food one day out of the year”, he says, noting that cranberries freeze well and would be a perfect choice for year-round consumption. Along with this positive outlook, he’s heartened by the recent Stanford study comparing organic and conventional produce, unlike many of his colleagues. “They were telling the world that my organic berries has the same nutritional value as conventional. I wish someone would have come out and said thank you! That’s great news!”

It’s a conflicted moment. At the same time as his commitment for growing organically, and to contributing to his community’s clean environment, is going strong after 20 years, it’s increasingly harder for Leo to imagine a future growing the way he does, with its effort-intensive, endless hand weeding and low return. But his commitment to being a responsible grower show through his resignation to market trends. “I know for a fact”, he says, “that if my wife and I decide to grow conventionally, we will have very little impact on the environment,” citing a conscientious use of best practices. To speak plainly, we’re all at this crossroads with him. Do our values trump our economic interests, or can we continue to find a balance between them? Leo’s 20 acres of berries in Harwich is land to keep an eye on, as a bellwether of our better instincts.

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